The Earliest “Howl” Recordings

How to best relive the poetry reading that changed history

Jay DeFeo and Wally Hedrick at the 6 Gallery. Photo by C.R. Snyder
Jay DeFeo and Wally Hedrick at the 6 Gallery. Photo by C.R. Snyder

It’s hard to imagine that artist Wally Hedrick had much prescience for what was to become of his idea to host poetry readings at the 6 Gallery. Hedrick’s purpose in opening the Six, which he co-founded with Hayward King, Deborah Remington, John Allen Ryan, David Simpson, and Jack Spicer, was to create a space for the fledgling community of San Francisco avant-garde artists to show their work, and to be an underground gathering place—at the time one of only a handful of its kind. The addition of poetry readings brought in the poets and literati, and if it served as an opportunity to speak out in defiance of authority and convention—all the better.

A gathering at the 6 Gallery. Photo by C.R. Snyder.

This year marks the 65th anniversary of that historic reading. By Hedrick’s own admission, the events that happened at the 6 Gallery were poorly documented, and thus scant record of them exists. No recordings were made at the October 7, 1955 inaugural reading of the “6 Poets at 6 Gallery” poetry series, and there are no pictures. Evidently Walter Lehman, who photographed the re-created reading the following year, had purchased a Rolleicord camera earlier, but didn’t bring it when he attended the original Six Gallery reading. The only photos from the series at the Six, by photographer C.R. Snyder, were taken at later readings.

Listen to the recordings from the March 1956 Berkeley re-creation of the Six Gallery reading (MP3, 48:12)

Ginsberg’s reading from March 1956 (YouTube, 32:00)

As Michael McClure put it, “When Allen read ‘Howl’, we all knew a line had been crossed.” The impact of that first reading was so momentous that a re-creation of the event was organized in March of the following year, sponsored by the Poetry Center at San Francisco State College, and held at the Berkeley Town Hall Theater. The event was dutifully recorded, and the tapes reside in the Poetry Center archives at SF State. This time, Walter Lehman also remembered to bring his camera.

The re-created Six Gallery reading was long thought to be the very earliest recording of the poem, and also the first time Ginsberg read the completed version of “Howl.” At the original 6 Gallery reading, Allen had only read the first part; he finished writing sections II and III, and “Footnote to Howl” later, after moving to Berkeley. But that was until 2007, when author John Suiter discovered one of two tapes in the archives at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which were made when Ginsberg and Gary Snyder stopped there while hitchhiking trip through the Pacific Northwest a month before the Berkeley event.

Listen to the earliest recording of “Howl,” mid-February 1956, from Reed College:

You can also read John Suiter’s article “When the Beats Came Back” in the 2008 edition of Reed Magazine here.